25 August 2009

The Salt of the Earth

It seems to me that the world is made up of three kinds of people:
1) Those who are humble when they've been humbled (and that means most of us, from you to me to Bernard Madoff);
2) those who are defiant when they've been humbled;
3) those who know Who is keeping them afloat no matter how well they swim.

24 August 2009

No Country is an Island

I don't think I've ever put much faith in those foreign-policy ideas variously known as "isolationism" or "non-interventionism - at least not as guarantors of world peace and stability. Indeed, I'm not sure how effective "isolation" is even for keeping one's own country at peace, and even with one's own neighbors and trading partners. Of course it may work for Switzerland or Bhutan or the Marquesas Islands. But for Britain and America? How far, I wonder, did "righteous isolation" keep the United States from going to war with Canada and Mexico in the first half of the 19th century? And how effective was "benevolent non-intervention" in preventing Britain's opium wars with China during roughly the same period?

Which brings me to another, I think rather closely related question. Isn't it strange how being "isolated" from a particular part of the world, or ignorant of it, or indifferent to the great questions of its Past and its Future, has never stopped Americans from investing in that place? Isn't it even stranger, that our American investments in a particular country never quite seem to keep us from going to war over that country? And then, when we are seemingly right in the thick of the action, from pulling out more or less abruptly? And then, strangest of all, sometimes we even go on to behave as though we barely knew there ever was such a country! Until, of course, the time comes when we might need a pipeline or two.

My point is not to argue against overseas investment, or overland pipelines, or even war when it becomes necessary. My point is to insist that we do everything we can to know - respectfully, thoughtfully, vigilantly - the places in which we are investing. And that means, I think, every place in which we have a substantial corporate or military presence. Even those places that we expect very shortly will become the most like us. After all, no matter how far we may engirdle the globe with our Starbucks and Best Buys and Costcos, things aren't always going to change in exactly the ways we expect them to. And that means an invasion of Iran or Pakistan is likely to remain - for the foreseeable future - a very different thing from acquiring Texas or California.

23 August 2009

The Rapture of English Poetry; or, A Meeting of Souls

What I like best about the best of the English poets is this uncanny, almost mad impulse they have, of wanting to read and decipher the non-human natural world. Some of them, you'd almost swear, could immerse themselves in a water-meadow as if it were Oxford's Bodleian Library. Or better yet, as if they'd thought they could decode, in every one of that meadow's creatures, a series of inscriptions, monuments, friezes and sculptures - and these of a civilization not only lost and irrecoverable, but wholly unsurpassable by even the best we moderns could ever achieve. Not, of course, a civilization whole and entire, but ruins and fragments. And yet even the tiniest of these fragments suggesting a way of Life immeasurably superior to all the grandest of our future utopias - superior, at least, in all those things that matter most permanently: Kindness, quietness, solitude, patience, wonder, rapture, delight.

I can't be sure what exactly these better poets have found, or whether indeed they've found anything. I can only write about what I see as the passion of their search. The best of them seem to search the "nature" of their field of vision, and every visible thing in it, as it were archaeologically: as if there lay concealed everywhere in its folds - even amid its most unforgiving conflicts, even in the savagery of "tiny" bird preying upon worm - some imprint of a human Self we had long ago lost or discarded. Almost as if, say, my childhood enjoyment of an old and much-beloved tree - and that tree's own, in its measure, delighted response to my enjoyment - were all things that still lay hidden, like a secret treasure, among its leaves and its bark: hidden, and waiting, and perhaps even hopeful of a periodic reunion (of hidden tree and hidden self) through all the intervening ravages of sun, and wind, and fire, and Man.

A Tale of Two Economies

Walter de la Mare's tale The Wharf: An extraordinarily simple and wide-ranging story, set in England c. 1920, that moves from town to farm to dream, and then back again. It contains a horror more of the real than of the imaginary kind, more of the soul than of the flesh, plus a hope so tangible you can practically smell it. But for me obviously it is much easier to describe its effect than to summarize its plot. Let me just say that out of the residue left over when the details have evaporated, a most interesting pattern seems to emerge: A powerful meditation on our human world and the treasures it has, out of which it makes refuse; and on the natural world around us, and the refuse it has, out of which it makes treasure.

21 August 2009

A Monstrous Future

I don't mean to seem utterly down on American culture. I believe my country to be one of the utmost importance to the future of the world, and one that has been given a part of inestimable value to play in that future. But right now the whole world, the entire earth is crying from the depths of its pain for an America that is quieter and humbler than probably anything we've ever known. We all need this transformation. Mexico needs it, China needs it, Europe and India and Arabia need it. We all need an America that is quiet and humble enough to see the visible creatures of God - whoever and whatever they may be - for what they are, and not just for what we can fashion them into. We need to see once again the lighter, more delicate presence of God at work and at play in the world, and not just the rather more brutally unmistakable evidence of ourselves.

Or else - what? We can further bury ourselves in matters and things more manipulable to us - things of which we seem to be the gods, and which make us feel like gods. We can continue in our present role of playing Dr Frankenstein to a monstrous new world - our dazzling tour de force of global dissection and reassemblage. Imagine the adventure of living in a thoroughly modern, prefabricated human world! A world, not of places and peoples that arose "naturally" or historically, but one consisting entirely of a scrapheap of human cultures welded into a design, manufacture, and efficiency of our own choosing . . .

A fascinating experiment, no? And then, down the road, we'll have the further opportunity of seeing how well and how long the monster obeys - or even tolerates - its creator. The choice, as we Americans like to say, is ours.

13 August 2009

Geese vs Ganders

Comparing the Bush and Obama foreign-policy styles, the distinguished military historian Eliot Cohen wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal:

". . . the patter of applause from a press whose sycophancy would embarrass a Renaissance court should not hide the dangers inherent in Mr Obama's style, which is characterized by an easy assumption of foreign policy omniscience and omnicompetence.
"Some of his ambitions will come crashing down into ruin, and surely ghastly surprises lie athwart our path. The Bush administration, many of its critics said, fell victim to hubris, the fatal arrogance punished, according to the ancients, by the goddess Nemesis. The Greeks would understand the irony if we discovered that cold-eyed lady, always hovering closer than politicians realize, turning an increasingly disapproving gaze on today's White House."

So . . . and do you suppose Mr Bush's critics might also have been right? Or has the current administration alone managed to corner the market on hubris?

Maybe I'm getting harder to please. I've often enjoyed articles by Mr Cohen over the years. And particularly those having anything to do with the War on Terror. But what is it about today's climate of political debate that makes me more than a little nauseous? I keep getting the sense that fair-mindedness, over the past 15 or so years, either (1) has become something ridiculous and passe, or (2) has been re-defined beyond recognition. Here, in essence, is what I understand commentators of this Enlightened Global Age to be saying about political morality:

"Whatever it is, it's good - or at least OK - when we do it, because we're good. By the same token, it's bad when you do it, because - well, you know . . ."

Or, to put the matter still more delicately: "What is at most a pardonable failing when done by my side - say, for example, arrogance - becomes at the very least a matter of deep concern (i.e., lots of brow-furrowing and hand-wringing) when you guys do it. The reason? Well, being less corrupt than you folks to begin with, we are by definition not only better able to handle the temptations of power, but less dangerous when we succumb to them. Got it?"

Note the reasoning here. Notice how those exact vices which become most deadly when I fail to perceive them in myself - like arrogance and self-conceit and over-confidence - are made more excusable, not despite my being subject to them, but because I am subject to them! And all because I'm on the right political side! And so those same excusable (but only in ourselves) vices go on to poison the whole political discourse and atmosphere of a country, even as they become more and more detestable to each contending side.

And who loses out worst in the end, worse than even our smug, pompous Democrats and Republicans? Oh, nobody important. Only a certain more or less negligible human entity - as I suppose all mere countries are these days - known as the United(?) States of America. Meanwhile, a certain Osama looks out upon all that he has made, and lo, it may not be very good. But it's looking better with every passing day.

God heal America.

The Last Word on America

I don't think the world - even in this Age - is by any means finished with America. Or vice versa.

And yet, big as America is, and as unimaginably bigger as it plans to get, there are always going to be things in this world we cannot encompass. And not just militarily or economically, but culturally. And even - if you can imagine it - spiritually. Right up until the very Last Day, this earth will be full of things that exceed even the vastness and variety of our American civilization. Things wiser than our most extraordinary intelligence, wilder than our most unbridled inventiveness, wickeder than our most cynically hardboiled opportunism, uglier than our blandest stripmalls, holier than our 100+ flavors of Bible-believing, Bible-ignoring Christianity. Most important of all, I believe, this earth contains strange things - things more exquisitely remembering, more longingly hopeful, more quietly and restfully and confidently expectant, than all our most exhilarating optimisms. But expectant of what? And of Whom?

That is the great question of our times, isn't it? And even if we're sure we're living the right answer, there remains the rest of creation - both human and beyond - to think about. As long as day follows night, the loneliness, the longing of their souls will cry to be filled, and that is a howling even we Americans can't feed or put to sleep. But even if we aren't God's Chosen Civilization, we can still do our part, in preparing the earth for the coming of this last Word of all.

But we'll need to get going. Because the sooner America realizes it is not the last word on much of anything, the sooner it can begin to broaden its at present rather specialized vocabulary. Just think of the words we'll discover and explore! Words that speak - and not just of science and abstract categorization, or of neat political labels and compartments, or of economic and organizational utilities and agendas, but of Life. And not just any kind of life so-called. I am thinking of words kind, and observant, and attentive enough - maybe even delighting enough - to speak of the livingness, the individuality, of this particular creature. Or that one. Anything from a centipede to a systems analyst. From a peacock to a professor of astrophysics. From a starving child in Eritrea to a geostrategist at Rand Corporation. What difference does it make what kinds of creatures? Haven't we got words enough for all of them? Aren't they all in their various ways - blind and seeing, wise and foolish, open and grudging - aren't they all, in one or another buried corner of their souls, awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God?

Mind you, I'm not talking about who these often vain creatures think they are, or what they pretend they want. I mean what they are in their inmost and utmost selves, in the deep wonder and secrecy of what they have been made. And please remember - even with material as stubbornly unpromising as you and I - there is nothing God made that He cannot re-make.

12 August 2009

Unexpected Continuities

Much has been made in recent years of the miraculously productive capitalism of post-Maoist China. God knows it isn't hard to see why. Indeed, it would be hard to think of anything we buy these days that China doesn't make, in one brand or another.

And yet - however some of us may try to "put the whole thing in perspective" - few of us would deny the immense cultural, the environmental, above all the human costs, of Beijing's distinctive capitalist experiment. Today's China certainly is making rapid, perhaps even historically unprecedented strides in the direction of a fully industrialized market economy. Yet even as I write, its progress towards democracy and legal protection of human rights may not uncharitably be described as one step forward, two steps back.

And so I think by now a certain question may be in order. But it is one we need to ask more than rhetorically. Quite simply, what is the good, in a given country, of a form of capitalism that retains all the seminal values of that country's previous phase of socialism? Not the window-dressing values, but the core ones. Not all the lip-service about caring and compassion and equality, but the real agenda: The breakneck drivenness; the quest to prove civilizational superiority; the blithe disregard of any human cost; the hell-bent determination to achieve growth-and-progress-at-any-price. I'll admit the egalitarian letter of Maoism may be both safely dead and irretrievably buried. But can we be quite as sure of the utopian Maoist spirit?

The problem with demarcating boundaries in history is that nothing is ever really, definitively over. In 1972, on the eve of Nixon's Shanghai Communique, no one could have foreseen the frankly capitalist direction mainland China would take by the end of the seventies. In 1989, on the eve of the Tiananmen Massacre, few could have predicted the anti-rural, elitist, almost inhumanly perfectionist bent of Chinese capitalism in the ensuing decades.

Now it appears we may have turned another corner - at least we in the English-speaking world. But who knows what part the current "Chinese model" may yet play in our own renovation - or gutting - of Anglo-Saxon capitalism? Neither can we be sure that socialism of any kind will take its place, and if so which of its innumerable varieties and mutations. Certainly capitalism in our day has shown itself more than capable of a few good mutations of its own. Just look at the past two decades. I doubt if anyone at the height of Western Cold War capitalism could have predicted a post-Cold War successor so profoundly different in character and spirit: so drab, so unhedonistic, so workaholically full (rather than free) of care.

We may fondly hope the worst of that, too, is behind us. But suppose it happens that we've turned a real corner, and not an imaginary one. What good will it be, if the neighborhood we're entering is not a better one, but every bit as bad or worse? What would be the good - what might be the justification - of an American "socialism" that retained all the impatience, the arrogance, the disdain for history, the contempt of human beings - in sum, all the worst virtues - of the "capitalism" that preceded it?